Scouts earn merit badges at STEM’s hidden gem

It can be unsettling when you’re driving through 3 million acres of North Carolina mountain wilderness, and a nine-story radio telescope suddenly looms up above the treetops. The massive structure, with its 85-foot dish, is one of four radio telescopes, two radio arrays and five optical telescopes at the impressive Learning Center at PARI.

PARI, which stands for Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, is a bustling hub of STEM education and wonder for Scouts and non-Scouts alike, tucked into a valley in the Pisgah National Forest. After serving as a NASA facility in the 1960s and then a National Security Agency site, it now hosts numerous space and science field trips and camps, with several instructors teaching astrophysics, astrobiology, astronomy, computational thinking, robotics, geology and other subjects to more than 1,000 wide-eyed students every year.

But if it weren’t for the efforts of an Eagle Scout decades ago, the whole thing might have been torn down and never used again — its history, perhaps, all but forgotten.

“It’s a remarkable facility,” says Nonnie Cullipher, the center’s learning manager.

Instructors educate about 1,400-1,600 kids a year through a mix of summer learning camps and field trips during the school year. Attendees get a close-up view of stars and planets with the aid of a dedicated planetarium. They get to use the massive radio telescopes and optical telescopes to peer deep into our universe. They learn about space exploration through PARI’s space museum, which boasts a real rocket engine, communications satellite, lunar lander model and wing segment from the space shuttle Challenger.

“It’s amazing,” says Scott Phillips, an airline pilot and Scouting parent who organized a merit badge event at PARI in March 2019. “We started with a planetarium visit and then went out to the optical viewing area.

The next morning, we offered the Space Exploration and Geology merit badges, because the facility has the second-largest meteorite collection in the country.”

The Scouts even got to touch a moon rock that had fallen to Earth in meteorite form.

“If an opportunity ever pops up to visit a secret research base like that, you should definitely go on it,” says Andrew Schoenwald, 16, from Troop 34 in Charlotte, N.C. “It was really worth the time.”

Rich History

PARI started as NASA’s Rosman Satellite Tracking Station in 1962, commissioned by President John F. Kennedy to relay communications to and from the lunar astronauts in Project Apollo. When Neil Armstrong spoke the famous line, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Rosman heard him first, and passed his words to Mission Control in Houston and then on to the rest of the world.

After the Apollo program ended, the National Security Agency repurposed the facility as a classified intelligence gathering base, using it to intercept Soviet satellite transmissions during the Cold War.

“They had about 350 NSA employees here at that time,” says J. Donald Cline, an Eagle Scout who founded PARI and currently serves as its president.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the NSA mothballed the installation, turning it over to the U.S. Forest Service.

“The agreement was,” Cline says, “that they would close the site and plow everything under and return it back the way it was. They were going to tear down all these 56 buildings and about $200 million in assets. Your tax investment and my tax investment would have been lost.”

It just so happened Cline had a passion for STEM learning — and the means to do something about it.

Cline built his thirst for knowledge in Scouting. The son of a schoolteacher and an architectural mill worker, he joined a troop in 1950 at age 13. In three years, he earned his Eagle rank and 46 merit badges.

Still hungry for discovery, Cline founded a microcomputer company in 1977, during a time when there were no microcomputers. He sold the business 17 years later and retired with the means to spread his passion for STEM learning.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Cline joined the boards of several nonprofits. One of these was at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where he helped with the school’s physics and astronomy programs.

“They had four optical telescopes and did not have a radio telescope,” says Cline. “I said, ‘You’re looking at a very narrow image, spectrum-wise.’”

When he heard about the decommissioned NASA site nearby, it sounded like a dream come true. He needed equipment. They had equipment.

The trouble? The government was getting ready to demolish it.

“They would have done it already, but they didn’t have the $2 million or $3 million they needed to tear everything down and scrap it,” Cline says.

A Dream Made Real

In January 1999, Cline and his wife, Jo, acquired the site and gifted it to a public foundation.

“Today,” he says, “we have camping, facilities for training, a restaurant, cabins, hiking trails and even a helicopter pad to fly into.”

Cline’s vision for the learning center at PARI was to kindle a passion for STEM in young minds that would propel them on to fully realized, successful lives.

“For 20 years, it’s been an educational facility for students and visiting scientists,” Cullipher says. “Last summer, we had two 10th grade boys here studying the Bubble Nebula. They made some new observations that got published and presented at the North Carolina Astronomers’ Meeting. Can you imagine how wonderful that will look on their college applications?”

“I’m just so pleased with the results,” Cline says. “My return on investment is all the smiles I see and all the students who go into science.”

To the visitors who come to PARI every year, Cline’s work has a measurable effect. Roman Phillips, 13, of Troop 116 in Charlotte, says he won’t soon forget his trip.

“I liked seeing and touching the moon rock and the dinosaur egg,” Roman says. “I also liked when we hiked up on top of the hill and saw all the telescopes and the stars — and then a supernova through a telescope.”

“At PARI, experts taught the merit badges,” says Kelvin Benfield, a Scouting parent from Charlotte. “When they discussed space exploration, they were talking deep details. It was a deep dive into those sciences. I don’t know that some college courses would carry the same weight that these merit badge classes did.”

An Important Engine

One of the artifacts in PARI’s space museum is a Redstone rocket engine — the same model that launched Alan Shepard into history as the first American in space. The engine blasted off again on the silver screen in 2016, playing a central role in the critically acclaimed biopic Hidden Figures.

Astro Explorer’s Camp

One of PARI’s most interesting programs is the part-science, part-service project Astro Explorer’s Camp. Students learn to use professional 3-D rendering software called Blender to 3-D print physical models of craters on Mars and the moon. The students add Braille to the models, and then donate them to museums for use by students who are sight impaired.

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